Archive for the 'Diversity in Science' category

NIH Director Collins went to Kenya and all I got was

Aug 04 2016 Published by under Diversity in Science, NIH

...a picture he took with the 0.2%.

9 responses so far

NIH Director Collins and CSR Director Nakamura continue to kick the funding disparity can down the road

A News piece in Science by Jeffrey Mervis details the latest attempt of the NIH to kick the Ginther can down the road.

Armed with new data showing black applicants suffer a 35% lower chance of having a grant proposal funded than their white counterparts, NIH officials are gearing up to test whether reviewers in its study sections give lower scores to proposals from African-American applicants. They say it’s one of several possible explanations for a disparity in success rates first documented in a 2011 report by a team led by economist Donna Ginther of the University of Kansas, Lawrence.

Huh. 35%? I thought Ginther estimated more like a 13% difference? Oh wait. That's the award probability difference. About 16% versus 29% for white applicants which would be about a 45% lower chance. And this shows "78-90% the rate of white...applicants". And there was Nakamura quoted in another piece in Science:

At NIH, African-American researchers “receive awards at “55% to 60% the rate of white applicants,” Nakamura said. “That's a huge disparity that we have not yet been able to seriously budge,” despite special mentoring and networking programs, as well as an effort to boost the number of scientists from underrepresented minorities who evaluate proposals.

Difference vs rate vs lower chance.... Ugh. My head hurts. Anyway you spin it, African-American applicants are screwed. Substantially so.

Back to the Mervis piece for some factoids.

Ginther..noted...black researchers are more likely to have their applications for an R01 grant—the bread-and-butter NIH award that sustains academic labs—thrown out without any discussion...black scientists are less likely to resubmit a revised proposal ...whites submit at a higher rate than blacks...

So, what is CSR doing about it now? OK HOLD UP. LET ME REMIND YOU IT IS FIVE YEARS LATER. FIFTEEN FUNDING ROUNDS POST-GINTHER. Ahem.

The bias study would draw from a pool of recently rejected grant applications that have been anonymized to remove any hint of the applicant’s race, home institution, and training. Reviewers would be asked to score them on a one-to-nine scale using NIH’s normal rating system.

It's a start. Of course, this is unlikely to find anything. Why? Because the bias at grant review is a bias of identity. It isn't that reviewers are biased against black applicants, necessarily. It is that they are biased for white applicants. Or at the very least they are biased in favor of a category of PI ("established, very important") that just so happens to be disproportionately white. Also, there was this interesting simulation by Eugene Day that showed a bias that is smaller than the non-biased variability in a measurement can have large effects on something like a grant funding system [JournalLink].

Ok, so what else are they doing?

NIH continues to wrestle with the implications of the Ginther report. In 2014, in the first round of what NIH Director Francis Collins touted as a 10-year, $500 million initiative to increase the diversity of the scientific workforce, NIH gave out 5-year, $25 million awards to 10 institutions that enroll large numbers of minority students and created a national research mentoring network.

As you know, I am not a fan of these pipeline-enhancing responses. They say, in essence, that the current population of black applicant PIs is the problem. That they are inferior and deserve to get worse scores at peer review. Because what else does it mean to say the big money response of the NIH is to drum up more black PIs in the future by loading up the trainee cannon now?

This is Exhibit A of the case that the NIH officialdom simply cannot admit that there might be unfair biases at play that caused the disparity identified in Ginther and reinforced by the other mentioned analyses. The are bound and determined to prove that their system is working fine, nothing to see here.

So....what else ?

A second intervention starting later this year will tap that fledgling mentoring network to tutor two dozen minority scientists whose R01 applications were recently rejected. The goal of the intervention, which will last several months, is to prepare the scientists to have greater success on their next application. A third intervention will educate minority scientists on the importance of resubmitting a rejected proposal, because resubmitted proposals are three times more likely to be funded than a de novo application from a researcher who has never been funded by NIH.

Oh ff..... More of the same. Fix the victims.

Ah, here we go. Mervis finally gets around to explaining that 35% number

NIH officials recently updated the Ginther study, which examined a 2000–2006 cohort of applicants, and found that the racial disparity persists. The 35% lower chance of being funded comes from tracking the success rates of 1054 matched pairs of white and black applicants from 2008 to 2014. Black applicants continue to do less well at each stage of the process.

I wonder if they will be publishing that anywhere we can see it?

But here's the kicker. Even faced with the clear evidence from their own studies, the highest honchos still can't see it.

One issue that hung in the air was whether any of the disparity was self-inflicted. Specifically, council members and NIH officials pondered the tendency of African-American researchers to favor certain research areas, such as health disparities, women’s health, or hypertension and diabetes among minority populations, and wondered whether study sections might view the research questions in those areas as less compelling. Valantine called it a propensity “to work on issues that resonate with their core values.” At the same time, she said the data show minorities also do less well in competition with their white peers in those fields.

Collins offered another possibility. “I’ve heard stories that they might have been mentored to go into those areas as a better way to win funding,” he said. “The question is, to what extent is it their intrinsic interest in a topic, and to what extent have they been encouraged to go in that direction?”

Look, Ginther included a huge host of covariate analyses that they conducted to try to make the disparity go away. Now they've done a study with matched pairs of investigators. Valantine's quote may refer to this or to some other analysis I don't know but obviously the data are there. And Collins is STILL throwing up blame-the-victim chaff.

Dude, I have to say, this kind of denialist / crank behavior has a certain stench to it. The data are very clear and very consistent. There is a funding disparity.

This is a great time to remind everyone that the last time a major funding disparity came to the attention of the NIH it was the fate of the early career investigators. The NIH invented up the ESI designation, to distinguish it from the well established New Investigator population, and immediately started picking up grants out of the order of review. Establishing special quotas and paylines to redress the disparity. There was no talk of "real causes". There was not talk of strengthening the pipeline with better trainees so that one day, far off, they magically could better compete with the established. Oh no. They just picked up grants. And a LOT of them.

I wonder what it would take to fix the African-American PI disparity...

Ironically, because the pool of black applicants is so small, it wouldn’t take much to eliminate the disparity: Only 23 more R01 applications from black researchers would need to be funded each year to bring them to parity.

Are you KIDDING me? That's it?????

Oh right. I already figured this one out for them. And I didn't even have the real numbers.

In that 175 bin we'd need 3 more African-American PI apps funded to get to 100%. In the next higher (worse) scoring bin (200 score), about 56% of White PI apps were funded. Taking three from this bin and awarding three more AA PI awards in the next better scoring bin would plunge the White PI award probability from 56% to 55.7%. Whoa, belt up cowboy.

Moving down the curve with the same logic, we find in the 200 score bin that there are about 9 AA PI applications needed to put the 200 score bin to 100%. Looking down to the next worse scoring bin (225) and pulling these 9 apps from white PIs we end up changing the award probability for these apps from 22% to ..wait for it..... 20.8%.

Mere handfuls. I had probably overestimated how many black PIs were seeking funding. If this Mervis piece is to be trusted and it would only take 23 pickups across the entire NIH to fix the problem....

I DON'T UNDERSTAND WHAT FRANCIS COLLINS' PROBLEM IS.

Twenty three grants is practically rounding error. This is going to shake out to one or maybe three grants per year for the ICs, depending on size and what not.

Heck, I bet they fund this many grants every year by mistake. It's a big system. You think they don't have a few whoopsies sneak by every now and again? Of course they do.

But god forbid they should pick up 23 measly R01s to fix the funding disparity.

37 responses so far

How AAAS and Science magazine really feel about sexual harassment cases in science

Michael Balter wrote a piece about sexual harassment accusations against paleoanthropologist Brian Richmond, the curator of human origins at the American Museum of Natural History that was published in Science magazine.

This story has been part of what I hope is a critical mass of stories publicizing sexual harassment in academia. Critical, that is, to stimulating real improvement in workplaces and a decrease in tolerance for sexual harassing behavior on the part of established scientists toward their underlings.

There have been a very disturbing series of tweets from Balter today.

Holy....surely it isn't connected to....

Oh Christ, of course it is....

but they published it so...?

Well THAT should have a nicely suppressing effect on journalists who may think about writing up any future cases of sexual harassment in academia.

UPDATE: Blog entry from Balter.
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ETA: I am particularly exercised about this after completing, just this week, a survey from AAAS about what the membership expects from them. The survey did not seem to have a check box item for "Fight against scientific and workplace misconduct".

36 responses so far

Representation in manuscript review

Feb 25 2016 Published by under Diversity in Science, Science Publication

One of the things that determines success in science careers is the opinion ~three peer reviewers have about your manuscript as offered up for publication in a given journal.

Hopefully I do not have to rehash the way that journal identify of a scientist's published work affects career success.

Hopefully I do not have to rehash the way that bias creeps into what otherwise is supposed to be objective analysis.

And let us leave your well-intentioned, but hopelessly naive calls for blinded peer review aside until that nirvana is reached.

Do you think about reviewer diversity at all? Many journals publish a year-end list of all reviewers (these don't say how many each reviewer wrote, of course). Have you ever scanned them for, say, gender balance? If you are an AE or EIC....does diversity* concern you?

On the author side, would you work to ensure your suggestions for potential reviewers are not biased? Do you ask for about as many women as men? Does ethnic or other minority characteristic of your suggestions play a role?

I'm guessing the answer is no?

I have taken to trying to suggest equal numbers of male and female reviewers when I submit a manuscript. This is pretty simple in my fields of work, so long as you think about it.

Other forms of representation? Not really possible, is my first thought. But....now I'm thinking about it. Maybe I'll put a few people on my usual lists that I do not typically consider.

And when I get a chance I'm going to go through those published reviewer lists. I'm curious how the journals I think of as being in my field are doing.


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*Editorial boards are another place to look, those are published.

39 responses so far

The #StayMadAbby case proves the point about perceptions of fairness

Dec 10 2015 Published by under Academics, Anger, Diversity in Science

The other day I was discussing the notion of what is "fair" in majority USian thinking.

In the US, it is considered fair if the very top echelon of the disadvantaged population succeeds at the level of the bottom slice of the advantaged distribution.

And if any individual of the top echelon of the disadvantaged population should happen to achieve up past the middle of the advantaged distribution? Well clearly that is unfair and evidence of reverse discrimination!

I was not familiar with the details of the Abigail Fisher (#StayMadAbby) case under consideration by SCOTUS (see Scalia) this week when I wrote that. I have learned a few things.

The University of Texas has a policy of accepting the top 10% of in-state high school graduates. This accounted for 92% of the slots when Ms. Fisher was applying for admission. She was not in the top 10% of her class.

Her qualifications were mediocre at best: A GPA of 3.59 and SAT scores of 1180/1600.

So she was less than amazingly qualified and was fighting for one of the 8% of the remaining admission slots for non-top-10% applicants.

There is more though, which is a real kicker. Again, from the Salon article. There were:

168 black and Latino students with grades as good as or better than Fisher’s who were also denied entry into the university that year.

So if she had been admitted, they would have all had a case that she was stealing their slot.

It gets better*.

It’s true that the university, for whatever reason, offered provisional admission to some students with lower test scores and grades than Fisher. Five of those students were black or Latino. Forty-two were white.

Emphasis added.

Ms. Fisher is suing on the basis of those five black or Latino students who were admitted. They had worse grades, you see, so she deserved to get in. And was discriminated against solely on the fact that she wasn't black or Latina. Except 42 white students also were admitted with worse grades. So if anyone took her slot it is 42:5 THAT IT WAS A WHITE STUDENT.

And of course had she been offered admission, there were 168 individuals with the same claim against her that she is making now.

Reminder. This is not just one woman's disappointed whinging and viral YouTube video.

This case has wended its way all the way up to the highest court in the land and is being considered by our SCOTUS Justices.

She is the best possible plaintiff. Because the details of this case underscore how true it is that "fairness" in this country is that which only just barely allows the disadvantaged to draw (almost) even with the very lowest attaining members of the advantaged populations.
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*worse

100 responses so far

Your moment of Antonin Scalia

Dec 09 2015 Published by under Diversity in Science

In oral arguments over an affirmative action case involving undergraduate admissions to the University of Texas, Justice Antonin Scalia had the following to say:

Justice Scalia: There are — there are those who contend that it does not benefit African-Americans to — to get them into the University of Texas where they do not do well, as opposed to having them go to a less-advanced school, a less — a slower-track school where they do well. One of — one of the briefs pointed out that — that most of the — most of the black scientists in this country don’t come from schools like the University of Texas.
Mr. Garre: So this court —
Justice Scalia: They come from lesser schools where they do not feel that they’re — that they’re being pushed ahead in — in classes that are too — too fast for them.

29 responses so far

A scientific quiz

Dec 05 2015 Published by under Diversity in Science

I got twelve pretty quickly but I'd have to think a little harder for significantly more than that.

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Scenes

In the past few weeks I have been present for the following conversation topics.

1) A tech professional working for the military complaining about some failure on the part of TSA to appropriately respect his SuperNotATerrorist pass that was supposed to let him board aircraft unmolested...unlike the the rest of us riff raff. I believe having his luggage searched in secondary was mentioned, and some other delays of minor note. This guy is maybe early thirties, very white, very distinct regional American accent, good looking, clean cut... your basic All-American dude.

2) A young guy, fresh out of the military looking to get on with one of the uniformed regional service squad types of jobs. This conversation involved his assertions that you had to be either a woman or an ethnic minority to have a shot at the limited number of jobs available in any given cycle. Much of the usual complaining about how this was unfair and it should be about "merit" and the like. Naturally this guy is white, clean cut, relatively well spoken.... perhaps not all that bright, I guess.

3) A pair of essentially the most privileged people I know- mid-adult, very smart, blonde, well educated, upper middle class, attractive, assertive, parents, rock of community type of women. Literally *everything* goes in these women's direction and has for most of their lives. They had the nerve to engage in a long running conversation about their respective minor traffic stops and tickets and how unfair it was. How the cops should have been stopping the "real" dangers to society at some other location instead of nailing them for running a stop sign a little too much or right on red-ing or whatever their minor ticket was for.

One of the great things about modern social media is that, done right, it is a relatively non-confrontational way to start to see how other people view things. For me the days of reading science blogs and the women-in-academics blogs were a more personal version of some of the coursework I enjoyed in my liberal arts undergraduate education. It put me in touch with much of the thinking and experiences of women in my approximate career. It occasionally allowed me to view life events with a different lens than I had previously.

It is my belief that social media has also been important for driving the falling dominoes of public opinion on gay marriage over the past decade or so. Facebook connections to friends, family and friends of the same provides a weekly? daily? reminder that each of us know a lot of gay folks that are important to us or at the very least are important to people that are important to us.

The relentless circulation of memes and Bingo cards, of snark and hilarity alike, remind each of us that there is a viewpoint other than our own.

And the decent people listen. Occasionally they start to see things the way other people do. At least now and again.

The so-called Black Twitter is similar in the way it penetrated the Facebook and especially Twitter timelines and daily RTs of so many non-AfricanAmerican folks . I have watched this develop during Ferguson and through BlackLivesMatter and after shooting after shooting after shooting of young black people that has occurred in the past two years.

During the three incidents that I mention, all I could think was "Wow, do you have any idea that this is the daily reality for many of your fellow citizens? And that it would hardly ever occur to non-white people to be so blindly outraged that the world should dare to treat them this way?" And "Wait, so are you saying it sucks to have a less-assured chance of gaining the career benefits you want due to the color of your skin or the nature of your dangly bits....it'll come to you in a minute".

This brings me to today's topic in academic science.

Nature News has an editorial on racial disparity in NIH grant awards. As a reminder the Ginther report was published in 2011. There are slightly new data out, generated from a FOIA request:

Pulmonologist Esteban Burchard and epidemiologist Sam Oh of the University of California, San Francisco, shared the data with Nature after obtaining them from the NIH through a request under the Freedom of Information Act. The figures show that under-represented minorities have been awarded NIH grants at 78–90% the rate of white and mixed-race applicants every year from 1985 to 2013

I will note that Burchard and Oh seem to be very interested in how the failure to include a diverse population in scientific studies may limit health care equality. So this isn't just about career disparity for these scientists, it is about their discipline and the health outcomes that result. Nevertheless, the point of these data are that under-represented minority PIs have less funding success than do white PIs. The gap has been a consistent feature of the NIH landscape through thick and thin budgets. Most importantly, it has not budged one bit in the wake of the Ginther report in 2011. With that said, I'm not entirely sure what we have learned here. The power of Ginther was that it went into tremendous analytic detail trying to rebut or explain the gross disparity with all of the usual suspect rationales. Trying....and failing. The end result of Ginther was that it was very difficult to make the basic disparate finding go away by considering other mediating variables.

After controlling for the applicant's educational background, country of origin, training, previous research awards, publication record, and employer characteristics, we find that black applicants remain 10 percentage points less likely than whites to be awarded NIH research funding.

The Ginther report used NIH grant data between FY 2000 and FY 2006. This new data set appears to run from 1985 to 2013, but of course only gives the aggregate funding success rate (i.e. the per-investigator rate), without looking at sub-groups within the under-represented minority pool. This leaves a big old door open for comments like this one:

Is it that the NIH requires people to state their race on their applications or could it be that the black applications were just not as good? Maybe if they just keep the applicant race off the paperwork they would be able to figure this out.

and this one:

I have served on many NIH study sections (peer review panels) and, with the exception of applicants with asian names, have never been aware of the race of the applicants whose grants I've reviewed. So, it is possible that I could have been biased for or against asian applicants, but not black applicants. Do other people have a different experience?

This one received an immediate smackdown with which I concur entirely:

That is strange. Usually a reviewer is at least somewhat familiar with applicants whose proposals he is reviewing, working in the same field and having attended the same conferences. Are you saying that you did not personally know any of the applicants? Black PIs are such a rarity that I find it hard to believe that a black scientist could remain anonymous among his or her peers for too long.

Back to social media. One of the tweeps who is, I think, pretty out as an underrepresented minority of science had this to say:


Not entirely sure it was in response to this Nature editorial but the sentiment fits. If AfricanAmerican PIs who are submitting grants to the NIH after the Ginther report was published in the late summer of 2011 (approximately 13 funding rounds ago, by my calendar) were expecting the kind of relief provided immediately to ESI PIs.....well, they are still looking in the mailbox.

The editorial

The big task now is to determine why racial funding disparities arise, and how to erase them. ...The NIH is working on some aspects of the issue — for instance, its National Research Mentoring Network aims to foster diversity through mentoring.

and the News piece:

in response to Kington’s 2011 paper, the NIH has allocated more than $500 million to programmes to evaluate how to attract, mentor and retain minority researchers. The agency is also studying biases that might affect peer review, and is interested in gathering data on whether a diverse workforce improves science.

remind us of the entirely toothless NIH response to Ginther.

It is part and parcel of the vignettes I related at the top. People of privilege simply cannot see the privileges they enjoy for what they are. Unless they are listening. Listening to the people who do not share the set of privileges under discussion.

I think social media helps with that. It helps me to see things through the eyes of people who are not like me and do not have my particular constellations of privileges. I hope even certain Twitter-refuseniks will come to see this one day.

90 responses so far

Recruiting faculty

Professors L. Vosshall, C. Bargmann and N. Tronson were discussing the representation of women in the pools of applicants for faculty jobs the other day.

I surmised from the Twittscussion that they find that too few women are applying in their respective searches. These three are very well known neuroscientists so it isn't like they don't have the usual connections, either.

So what would you suggest?

How can a faculty member on a search committee work to get more underrepresented* individuals into the mix for a new hire?

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*we can broaden this beyond just sex disparity

58 responses so far

A sports-analogy for ASBMB President McKnight

Nov 04 2014 Published by under Academics, Diversity in Science

Steven McKnight is simply intoxicated with his first taste of a social media imbroglio.

...inclusion of the volatile word [riff-raff] in the C3 essay prompted widespread attention. For this, I am simply delighted. This was my first brush with social media, and I can clearly see its power.
...
My next two essays, for the December and January editions of ASBMB Today, will deal with this flaw head-on. Trust me — I will take off the gloves and fight bare-fisted in those two essays.

I'm sympathetic. We all get a little giddy the first time we spark a social media dustup that gets all sorts of people talking about us and our pet opinions. Doesn't make him any more right in his opinions, but whatever.

What really interests me is his choice of a sports-analogy that is more apt than he realizes.

In the state of Texas, tens of thousands of young kids begin competing in organized football during elementary school. The enterprise is highly inclusive and exceedingly diverse. By the time these kids get to high school, they know a lot about the sport and have begun to develop skills. In high school, however, a weeding-out process begins. Not all kids make the junior varsity and varsity teams, and not all kids — even if they make the team — are apportioned equal playing time. As things progress to college, the weeding-out process becomes all the more acute. Playing on Friday nights as a high-school athlete in Texas is lots of fun with broad participation. Playing on Saturdays as a college athlete may be equally fun, but only the most competitive kids are on the field. The final weeding-out step comes when players are drafted by the National Football League — 32 teams sport 53-man rosters, meaning that only 1,696 young men are eligible to suit up for Sunday football. These are the best of the best athletes and are rewarded accordingly....I think of science in this same way.

Emphasis added.

Naturally this is just a re-hash of the baseball player analogy that Comradde PhysioProffe loves to deploy on these pages and it has a lot of truth in it.

I wrote a post once upon a time that is relevant to this issue. HIGHLY relevant.



WarrenMoonEdEskimosHmm. You know, I once watched a Rose Bowl in which an undersized mediocre looking, but nevertheless competent, quarterback did a decent job of not losing too badly to his opposition. Faint praise right? Well, homie went on to a NFL pro career and made tons of cash while being, well, still kinda mediocre. Back in the 1978 Rose Bowl, however, fans were lucky enough to watch one Warren Moon (Wikipedia) of the UW Huskies whup up on the U. Mich Wolverines (boo!). Of course, even for some third rate collegiate bowl game, the fans were lucky to have him.

He was recruited by a number of colleges, but some wanted to convert Moon to another position as was the norm for many major colleges recruiting black high school quarterbacks.[9] Moon decided to attend West Los Angeles College in 1974-75 where he was a record-setting quarterback. After Moon showed his ability at West L.A., only a handful of four-year colleges showed interest in signing him. Offensive Coordinator Dick Scesniak [University of Washington], however, was eager to sign the rifle-armed Moon.

...oh, for chrissakes! People. This was the 1970s!!! Oh yeah, that's right. I remember those days. Black players can't be quarterback, you see. Don't have the right shoulder structure, it's a genetic thing doncha know. Plus, they aren't as good at all that, you know, quarterbacking stuff....
Come to think of it, I seem to recall some weebag Div I hockey player (who never ended up going anywhere professionally) writing some paper about how black people's hip structure precluded them from skating very well. (Or, skating like gangbusters and then fixing, oh, knees and hips for a living as an orthopedic surgeon)

Sorry. Back to the point. Oh yes. Warren Moon. Back to the Wikipedia:

Throughout his CFL career, Moon amassed 1,369 completions on 2,382 attempts (57.4 completion percentage) for 21,228 yards and 144 touchdown passes. He also led his team to victory in 9 of 10 postseason games. He was inducted into the Canadian Football Hall of Fame in 2001 and the Edmonton Eskimos Wall of Honour. In 2006, he was ranked fifth on a list of the greatest 50 CFL players presented by Canadian sports network TSN.

Not to shabby for a guy thought physically and mentally incapable of playing the quarterback position because of his skin color, right? Pretty decent.

What? What's that you say? There's more? Oh, riiiiigghht. That Warren Moon. The one who next jumped to the NFL and played from 1984-2000 as one of the more exciting quarterbacks to take the field,

Combining his NFL and CFL stats, Moon's numbers are nearly unmatched in professional football annals: 5,357 completions in 9,205 attempts for 70,553 yards and 435 touchdowns. Even if his Canadian League statistics are discounted, Warren Moon's career is still exceptional: 3,988 completions for 49,325 yards, 291 touchdown passes, 1,736 yards rushing, and 22 rushing touchdowns. During his NFL career, Warren Moon was named to nine Pro Bowl games (1988-1995, 1997).

I'm just getting going...

Alright. There's really not much point in going on and on to list Owens and Ashe and Gibson and the Williamses and Ribbses and Woods and Jones and all the other great athletes who thrilled (or continue to thrill) us with their class, competence and courage. Little point in detailing for each case where and when the operating rules of their sports (official and/or de facto) would have (or did..or still do) prevent them from excelling because of their skin color. Not much profit in describing how the overt bigotry of "they can't do it" papered over the fear that someone might be better than the rest of us. Silly to talk about the moral repugnance of categorically closing off the open field of play to some people just to benefit ourselves or those more like ourselves.

Because, you know, we're beyond all that sort of thing now. And...this is a blog that is supposed to focus on science. And the conduct of science. Which is objective. The only goal is the discovery.


To spell it out for Dr. McKnight and his fellow travelers....

Science is not a pure meritocracy. In the recent past when current generations were getting their start academic science was even less of a pure meritocracy. People who didn't look the right way, choose parents in the right way, express external dangly bits in the right way....all sorts of people who might have come to the table with the right brain equipment were systematically excluded. Denied from the competition before it even properly got started.

This still goes on. The "weeding-out" process that McKnight refers to (sports and science alike) is affected by bias. Opportunity is afforded to not the purest demonstrable talent. The pool of talent is chosen by the coaches. If they don't think a black kid can play quarterback, they will do their damndest to convert him to some other position so as to keep his "talent". How many Warren Moons did we never get to see on the field taking snaps?

As the man said, I think of science in this same way.

The coaches are the lab heads. The grayer bearded and bluer of hair. The gatekeepers are supported by their peers in review, in conference program committee and on hiring committees. Just as assuredly as coaches are supported by their owners, boosters, loyal alum, etc who have definite opinions on what a quarterback should be.

Somewhat less categorically, the coaches of sports and the coaches of science have individual biases as well. Show early signs of talent or even just effort.... and the coach gives you more playing time, calls the plays to you and lets you take the crunch-time shots. Sometimes the favored player is clearly inferior but the coach likes them for some reason (often enough because it is their own child) and wants to give them the best shot. Sometimes specialist talents are not used effectively simply because the coach can't see it or doesn't know how to work this talent into the mix so as to benefit the team (and that specialist talent's development).

I see this all the damn time in my now considerable hours spent watching my kids and their teammates play various sports.

And you know what? It is JUST like a dynamic that goes down in larger academic labs.

It is JUST like a dynamic that goes on in scientific sub-fields.

And McKnight's vision of who the "riff-raff" are and who the real scientists are cannot help but be similarly biased. We can't speculate on the nature of McKnight's biases...who knows, he may think that women or African-American or Asian scientists are the bomb and that standard old American white-guys like himself are a played out demographic*. I don't know**.

But what I do know is that whatever his concept of who is in the "riff raff" pool, he is biased and wrong. How can he not be? Most any individual person is going to be biased. That is why we use grant-selection and faculty-selection processes that depend on a committee of people. So as to hedge our bets against the bias of the individual attitude.

So I welcome this discussion McKnight would like to have. I look forward to further "bare-fisted" assertions of his position.

Because you know what? I know guys like this. I know what they are.

And I'm here to tell you. This guy is going to reveal further depths of his indefensible, personal-bias based and just-plain-wrong attitudes about who the best scientists are. In doing so, he will undercut support for anyone who might be nodding along with his truthiness at present. And that will be a good thing.

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*I do actually know at least one highly accomplished privileged older white guy scientist who has expressed a sentiment like this and appears to believe it. Just for the record.

**HAHAHAHAHA, of course, I do know. This guy is going to get caught saying some horrible racist and/or sexist thing along the lines of Jim Watson's finest statements. There is no possible other way this can go down. It's a rule of nature.

44 responses so far

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